Certain portions of Scripture are harder to grasp than others. Such is the case with the stoning passages (see Leviticus 20:27; 24:16; Numbers 15:32-36; Deuteronomy 13:6-11; 21:18-21). I can understand capital punishment, but stoning just seems so barbaric, cruel, and harsh, especially when the commandment is issued to parents to indict rebellious sons, as seen in Deuteronomy 21:18-21:
“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”
This is a hard passage to stomach, don’t you think? I prefer death by lethal injection, but stoning? What a mess. As believers, how are we to understand these verses?
We can’t overlay our twenty-first-century cultural understanding on this ancient milieu. Nothing will lead to more head-scratching confusion and frustration than that. Ours is a culture where a little swat causes a big sweat. No wonder stoning is extra hard for us to digest.
The son described in these verses exhibits an unbending and rebellious spirit. He’s steeped in sin, freely giving himself to drunkenness and gluttony, and refuses to respond to any parental discipline, altogether shunning the fifth commandment. These verses describe a seemingly hopeless case, one set in his own ways as he strong-arms God, his parents, and the principles of his surrounding theocratic nation. He’s a leper like son whose sin will spread and undo the moral fabric of his nation if left unchecked. Once the parents realize their son’s recalcitrance, they seek outside intervention as a final resort.
The health of the nation depended on the entire community walking in step with God. That’s not to say people didn’t sin. They did. A lot. And there was an entire sacrificial system in place so people could once again obtain a clear conscience before the Lord. The son described in these verses wasn’t looking for a clear conscience—his conscience was seared.
Interestingly enough, we have very few instances of stoning that take place in the biblical records and I’m not aware of any extra-biblical evidence that this punishment was commonly carried out. Perhaps the threat was enough to deter people from such recalcitrant REBELLIOUS behavior.
Finally, Jesus models the heart of God regarding stoning. In John 8:7 Jesus said to those who accused the adulterous woman, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” The law teaches us that we are all lawbreakers. Everyone under God’s law deserves capital punishment, but Jesus experienced capital punishment on our behalf even though He was the only one to ever fulfill the law. Essentially, He was stoned for us in an act of unconditional love as He experienced death on our behalf.